If you think “I’m not an artist” – please think again. When experiencing the pain of loss – no matter what that loss might be - the process of art-making can provide many beneficial effects independent of a person’s skill or talent. It is not the end product of our creation, but the creative process itself that helps us heal.
Grief is the product of a loss we have experienced. As we collectively continue to grapple with the loss of life, freedom, and changes the covid-19 pandemic has brought to our daily lives, art-making that focuses on emotional expression and experience offers an avenue for reducing stress, anxiety, fear and the many other manifestations of grief that so many of us are going through at this time.
Engaging in art-making allows us to express an inner language of imagery that is unique to us as individuals. Made up of colors, symbols, shapes and images, this inner language offers a way for us to voice what we truly think, feel, see and understand in a vocabulary beyond words, allowing whatever is in need of healing to come forth in its own time and in a gentle way. This language is not stationary or sedentary – rather it reflects our inner experience on any given day or at any given time of life. For example, today you might say the color and shape of happy is blue and a smiley face (a blue smiley face), but a year from now the color and shape of happy might be green and the sun (a green sun). Learning about and expressing our inner language of imagery can help us to understand the flow path of our grief and cue into the transformational process of healing that is going on inside of us as we work through the pain of loss.
Decades of research by Harvard Medical School affiliate Massachusetts General Hospital and elsewhere confirm that art-making that focuses on emotional expression and the experience of creating has many benefits. Art-making can:
- Help us express emotions and thoughts that go beyond words, allowing for the unconscious parts of ourselves to be revealed and given a voice. This can aid us in working through complex, uncomfortable and difficult emotions
- Free us from the mental and emotional clutter of self-judgment, thus freeing us to see what is at the heart of our perception – and whether or not that perception serves us well going forward.
- Increase emotional and mental coping abilities in people with depression and anxiety and other expressions of grief. The sudden death of a loved one, as well as other sudden and dramatic life changes can be trauma experiences for many people. Expressive art has been shown to aid in the processing of many of the mental and emotional expressions of grief such as depression, anxiety, anger, confusion, fear and mental fog. It is interesting to note that art therapy is now widely used to help treat a wide range of trauma issues from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to traumatic injury.
- Offer many of the same physical health benefits of massage such as: relax the muscles; soothe respiration; lower blood pressure; release endorphins (feel-good hormones); enhance the immune system; and more. In other words, art can act as a restorative in the same way that massage, taking a walk or other body-based self-care modalities can. Grief is a full body experience that creates a whole system issue of depletion. In the grieving process, art can create a doorway for voicing the unspeakable, thereby opening up channels for the pain of loss to flow through the grieving body.
- Encourage movement of the imagination that may feel stuck due to grief.
- Provide a timeout. By temporarily refocusing attention away from the pain of loss and onto the flow of creation, art-making can present a way to take a much needed break from the energy drain of active grieving.
The benefits of coloring, mask-making, visual journaling and mandala-making will all be highlighted in blogs II - V of The Healing Power of Art series, providing many avenues of expressive art for you to consider and explore.
Giving Color and Shape to Your Emotions
Giving color and shape to your emotions can be a great first step in exploring your inner language of imagery. Consider doing this relaxing and enjoyable exercise to get you started:
First, write down the below nine emotions at intervals along the left margin of a piece of paper; you can use either a piece of white drawing paper in the size of your choice or 8 ½ “ x 11 “ white multipurpose paper. Crayons are the preferred coloring implement for this activity.
Then, starting at the top of the list, say to yourself: “The color and shape of ___________ is.” Allow yourself several moments to slowly breathe in and out as you consider this statement. Your color and shape of happy might be anything representational or non-representational - a green sun, blue wavy lines, a sky blue heart with fluffy white clouds etc.; your inner language of imagery is unique to you - there is no wrong way to do this. Whatever color you are most drawn to when asking this question can be an indication of the color to be used; with that color draw whatever shape most represents for you the shape of the emotion you are trying to express. Continue to do this until you have gone through the list of nine emotions.
This activity can be done in a group or with children. Sharing the finished results of your exercise can help reiterate the individual nature of your inner language of imagery, providing a greater sense of appreciation of your own color and image vocabulary and that of others.